Top Ten Captain America Villains
A superhero is only so great as the costumed crazies he gets to battle. The rich rogues galleries of heroes like Batman and Spider-Man undoubtably contribute to those characters’ enduring appeal. I’d even argue that someone like the Flash would unambiguously be a second-tier hero (instead of a quasi-A-lister) if he didn’t command a roster of memorable villains to call his own.
Captain America is definitely an A-list hero, but is this due more to his iconic costume and role in comics history, or to his collection of super-powered rivals? Read on for my list of the Top Ten Captain America Villains, and then let me know how you think Cap’s most dastardly enemies stack up!
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10) The Grand Director
He has a complicated history, and owes his origin to a publication quirk, but the concept behind the Grand Director lets him squeak onto my list at #10.
Captain America has had two major publication periods — the wartime books published from 1941-1949, and the modern reintroduction of the character commencing with Avengers #4 in 1964. But in-between, Cap experienced a brief revival in the 1950s, which was not considered part of Marvel history until Steve Englehart resurrected the character for an early-1970s story, depicting him as a paranoid, ultra-patriotic double of our star-spangled hero. Driven mad by the cut-rate Super Soldier serum that gave him his powers, this forgotten Captain America became a vessel for all of America’s worst excesses in the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
Later, the character would be given a white spook suit and become the Grand Director, who is less interesting than a Red-baiting Captain America impersonator (who would be less interesting than a legitimately Red-baiting Captain America, but we can’t have everything). It’s all a bit of a muddle and serves to suppress that first awesome concept.
Continuity aside, the Grand Director is ultimately a tragic figure — a fallen hero manipulated into betraying everything he held dear by the next entry in my Top Ten List …
9) Doctor Faustus
A master of mind-control, mastermind of the neo-Nazi National Force, and the evil agent who twisted and manipulated the Grand Director for his own foul purposes, Doctor Faustus still may not have made this list but for a singular act of villainy. He does have deep roots in Cap’s history (having first appeared in Captain America #107), but with this subtle psychological powers, Dr. Faustus is little more than a second-rate Mysterio (without the groovy Steve Ditko costume).
I don’t care if he has a monocle and an Austrian accent … Doctor Faustus is pretty lame. But he did turn Sharon Carter into an unwitting pawn in Ed Brubaker’s Death of Captain America saga, and if you can punch the ticket of your arch-nemesis, then you get on the list!
(But he’s still a second-rate Mysterio!)
8) Baron Strucker
The first of several Nazis on this list, Baron Strucker might have been whistled up out of central casting — he has a monocle AND a Heidelberg fencing scar!
First appearing in 1964’s Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos #5, and eventually coming to lead HYDRA, Baron Strucker might more properly be considered a foe of Nick Fury and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but he’s battled Cap a time or two, and he also provides an excuse to show a bit of Steranko art, from that era when Strucker was undoubtably at his coolest.
Will Baron Strucker figure in Joss Whedon’s pending S.H.I.E.L.D. television series? The movie side of the Marvel Universe isn’t so deeply connected with World War II as the comics upon which is it based, so it seems unlikely that Strucker will appear in anything like his original form … but in a world where the Guardians of the Galaxy are getting their own movie, anything is possible! Hail HYDRA!
This is kind of a cheat, as I don’t really think of M.O.D.O.K. as a Captain America villain. But there is no denying that the “Mental Organism Designed Only For Killing” made his debut in the pages of a Captain America story in Tales of Suspense #93-94.
Any list is made better by M.O.D.O.K., and so everyone’s favorite hyper-encephalotic floating acronym gets the nod (though at a lower seeding than he might otherwise command!)
Batroc is definitely Captain America’s most ridiculous recurring foe (and that’s saying a lot, considering some of the names on this list), but no survey of Cap’s arch-enemies would be complete without him.
First appearing in Tales of Suspense #75, Batroc is a mercenary and a master of savate, the art of French foot fighting! That’s right, French foot fighting! Portrayed as something of a swashbuckler with his own code of honor, Batroc is more light-hearted than the Nazi psychopaths that make up most of Cap’s opposition … and no matter what his crimes, it is hard to hold a grudge against anyone with such an out-rageous Franch acc-cent, non?
Maybe Marvel will sober-up the character for his pending appearance in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier film, given that UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre has been cast to play him, but to me, Batroc will always be that goofy bearded guy bouncing around in purple tights …
5) Winter Soldier
And since we’re talking about pending Captain America films, it’s time to take a look at the Winter Soldier, who checks in at #5 on my list.
For decades, the death of Captain America’s wartime partner, Bucky Barnes, was one of the third rails of comic book storytelling. Other heroes might take on the identity of Bucky, or Bucky might seemingly come back from the dead (before being unmasked as an impostor or a robot or whatever), but the original version of Bucky was dead as Caesar, and permanently so.
At least, he was until Ed Brubaker came along.
Brubaker’s Winter Soldier arc stands out among the finest in Captain America history. In the best kind of revisionist storytelling, Brubaker reveals that Bucky wasn’t killed outright in the final days of World War II when he plunged into the English Channel from an exploding rocket, but that instead his body was recovered by Soviet agents, and that Bucky became a dreaded sleeper agent assassin during the Cold War — the Winter Soldier!
Though he would go on to become a hero commanding his own series (but not before his appearance in Winter Kills earned a spot in my list of Top Single Issue Stories), the Winter Soldier is initially a bad guy, a pawn in the Red Skull’s plan to destroy Captain America. As such, the Winter Soldier proves one of Captain America’s greatest foes, a murderously dangerous opponent who turns our hero’s heart against him. He’s a great character, and would rank higher on this list if he’d remained a villain. I’m curious to see how this character transitions to film in new summer’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier!
4) Arnim Zola
I’ve enthused about Arnim Zola in a recent Longbox Graveyard column, so I won’t go into great depth about him here. Jack Kirby’s last great contribution to the Captain America mythos is one of Cap’s weirdest foes, obsessed as he is with creating and manipulating life, and his freaky appearance is among the most bizarre in all of comics.
Like many of Cap’s great villains, this character lives on through the Marvel Captain America movie franchise, though in a substantially more conventional form. We can only hope actor Toby Jones will soon elect to transform himself into the Arnim Zola we all know and loathe …
3) Baron Zemo
For reasons too tedious to list (though Wikipedia is undaunted), Baron Zemo is actually two different bad guys … a Captain America foe introduced in the early days of The Avengers and Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos, and then that same character’s son, re-introduced in The Avengers decades later. To be honest, up until now I thought they were the same guy!
But maybe false memories are integral to this character. After all, he wasn’t created until 1964, but thanks to Marvel’s mania for continuity and its continual reinvention of history, Baron Zemo is responsible for one of the most heinous acts in Captain America history. No, it wasn’t that Baron Zemo was a Nazi who wore a purple bathrobe. It wasn’t even that he founded the Masters of Evil!
No … it was Baron Zemo who killed Bucky Barnes back in World War Two!
(Plus, his mask is glued to his face. Don’t ask).
Now I must note that the order of appearance of Baron Zemo and Arnim Zola created some controversy before this list we even published! In fact, this entire column was inspired by a particularly spirited exchange on my Twitter stream:
Ever the gentleman, John Gholson delivered with this illustration of … Arnim Zemo!
Thanks, John! And for more of John’s work, please visit his Gutters & Panels blog.
2) Red Skull
The Red Skull is more than just a top Captain America villain — he’s one of the premiere villains in the Marvel Universe. He first appeared in Captain America Comics #1 back in 1941, and he’s been Cap’s arch-nemesis ever since, battling our hero throughout World War II and returning from seeming death to bedevil Cap in the present era. He even wielded the Cosmic Cube before Thanos was a glimmer in his mother’s eye! The Red Skull co-headlined Super-Villain Team-Up for awhile, and he was memorably portrayed on the big screen by Hugo Weaving in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger.
As Captain America’s polar opposite, the Red Skull is clearly one of Cap’s greatest foes — a Fascist thug and murderous mastermind to oppose our freedom-loving hero. He’s also a badass, with no real superpowers — the Red Skull holds his own with fear gas and an endless string of minions that he holds in a grip of terror. Plus, the Red Skull brings along a whole host of lesser villains that might very well have made this list on their own, like Crossbones, Sin, Mother Night, and the enigmatic Sleepers.
With a resume like that, you’d expect the Red Skull to top this list!
Who could possibly be worse than the Red Skull?
1) Adolph Hitler!
That’s right … the only bad guy who could possibly be worse than the Red Skull is the Red Skull’s creator — Adolph Hitler!
I don’t mean to trivialize a real mass murderer by including him in a comic book top ten list, but Hitler is so interwoven into the Marvel Universe that he might as well be a supervillain at this point. Plus, if a couple of crazy kids named Kirby and Simon hadn’t decided to introduce a certain new red, white, and blue comic hero by having him sock Hitler on the chin, I probably wouldn’t be writing this list today.
Keep those colors flying, Cap!
What do you think of my top ten list of Captain America’s most fearsome foes? Did I snub anyone? Overrate someone? How do Cap’s villains rate against the greatest bad guys in comics history? Sound off in comments, below!
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Farewell To The King
Jack Kirby’s mid-1970s return to Marvel Comics was a mixed blessing. It was nice to see Jack back at the comics company that he helped to build, and the King did produce some imaginative work in this period. I enjoyed Kirby’s idiosyncratic take on Black Panther, and the Eternals got off to a promising start before untimely cancellation consigned another Kirby cosmic space epic to the dustbin of history. And of course there was Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It was Kirby’s return to his signature character that most disappointed me, then and now.
Maybe you just can’t go home again. Or maybe Jack was running on empty with Captain America — after all, he was pushing sixty by this time, and he’d been penning Cap’s adventures for thirty-five years, first with co-creator Joe Simon in Cap’s original Golden Age run, and later with Stan Lee as Cap was catapulted into the Silver Age in Tales of Suspense. Elevated expectations may have been part of the problem, but Kirby’s 1976 return to Captain America did not seem all it could have been.
Jack’s concepts were strong. Actually, they were inspired. A psychic bomb that could destroy the country … a secret society of criminal aristocrats determined to create an American monarchy … an inter-dimensional insane asylum … a demonic force from the end of time walking the earth as a powerful undead corpse … all of those ideas sound great! But for the most part, in execution these ideas came off flat. Maybe Kirby was trying to do too many comics at once, or maybe his playbook was showing its age, and the old approaches weren’t working any more.
speaking as a fan of Captain America and Jack Kirby, I’d rather NOT remember Alamo II
Whatever the reason, the King’s mid-seventies two-year run on Captain America wasn’t a happy one, characterized by some of the most negative letters pages I’ve ever read in a Marvel book. Kirby had his supporters, but many letters took Jack to task for clunky scripting that siloed Captain America from the rest of the Marvel universe, and ignored the more nuanced version of Cap previously developed by writers like Steve Englehart in favor of Kirby’s self-assured, two-fisted man of action (and for more insight about the letters pages of this era, check out Scott Edleman’s blog).
I was among those disappointed legions. When triaging my Accumulation, I was surprised to see I only had about half of this run, which meant I gave up on Jack’s vision for Cap when I first read it at the age of fourteen. I recall being disappointed that the Cap I saw in the Avengers had so little to do with the Cap in Kirby’s book. I’d like to blame my dissatisfaction on callow youth, but a recent back-issue purchase let me complete this run at last, and I must admit the re-read was a disappointment.
I’m not tone-deaf to Kirby’s style. In fact, I like the Kirby approach much better now that I am older and no longer take comics so seriously (said the man with the weekly comic book blog). I recently re-read Kirby’s Mister Miracle, which is just as old-fashioned as this Cap run, but Mister Miracle benefited from greater flights of imagination and richer characterization than Jack’s return to Cap. I can’t help but feel that Kirby was going through the motions here.
But then right when I was about to write this series off entirely, out of nowhere, Kirby attacks!
One second, Cap is waltzing around the jungle with a generic Central American dictator, and the next …
Good God!! W-What is it!? WHAT IS IT!?
It’s Jack Kirby cutting loose! Here, at last, in issue #208 of Captain America, the King is back, delivering on the promise not quite realized in his previous dozen-odd issues.
For all his energy, though, the Man-Fish was just a monster, and Cap had fought plenty of monsters in Kirby’s run. What made this monster special was that he heralded the arrival of Kirby’s last great contribution to the Captain America Canon …
The goofy-looking Arnim Zola might be easy to dismiss if he didn’t represent a very real modern anxiety, as Kirby outlined atop the splash page to issue #209.
But rather than bore us with cautionary tales about cloned sheep, Kirby expressed his disgust for genetic manipulation with monstrous creations like the amorphous Doughboy …
… or a living citadel that shapes itself into horrific forms, both to menace the lovely Donna Maria …
… and to threaten Cap and Donna when they later try to escape.
Kirby saw Arnim Zola as a modern Frankenstein, a twisted genius who sculpted horrors from flesh and bone. Like Frankenstein, Zola conducted his experiments in a remote Swiss castle … but unlike Frankenstein, Zola’s first experiments were on himself.
That Zola was so pleased with the horrific results of his transformation speaks to the sickness of his mind. We can safely conclude that Cap was not a fan.
Not content with making Arnim Zola a top-drawer weirdo, Kirby reveals Zola as a top-drawer weirdo with a past by connecting his mad scientist to the Red Skull.
But Kirby wasn’t done. As if a story featuring synthetic monsters and the Red Skull weren’t enough, Kirby goes to even stranger depths, first by detailing a bit of Zola’s mad handiwork …
… and then by offering his own spin on They Saved Hitler’s Brain!
I’m sure some later writer sorted out how Zola’s Hitler brain-in-a-box was reconciled with Hitler’s post-war identity as The Hate Monger, but it’s above my pay grade to look it up. Suffice to say this story already had it all even without Hitler’s brain!
But even without Hitler’s brain, this would be a classic Cap story, if only because of The Red Skull. No one drew a more decayed, corrupt, and evil Red Skull than did Jack Kirby, and seeing the Skull one more time was a special treat.
The tale comes to an abrupt but appropriate end as Cap and the Skull slug it out in the collapsing ruins of Zola’s castle, as they had done in the ruins of Hitler’s Germany.
But that would be the end for Jack Kirby and Captain America. His Arnim Zola arc was energetic and entertaining, and might have been an indication of better things to come, but after issue #214, Kirby would leave Cap (and Marvel comics) behind forever.
Kirby’s future lay in animation, while Cap would once again be just another Marvel Comics superhero book, neither very good nor very bad for years to come (and this particular Cap fan thinks the series didn’t really find it’s groove until Ed Brubaker came aboard three decades later). Most of these stories would fade from memory, but Arnim Zola haunts me still, though I can’t quite get used to his mainstream movie incarnation …
All-in-all, this run of Captain America is not how I would have chosen to say farewell to King Kirby, but all things have their time, and it had to end somewhere. And thanks to the terrifyingly bizarre Arnim Zola, I didn’t have to spend my final words about Kirby’s Captain America trying to find something nice to write about The Swine and General Argyle Fist!
The King is dead. Long Live The King!
- Title: Captain America
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1972-1986
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #208-212, April-August 1977
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B
- Read The Omnibus: Longbox Graveyard Store
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